The Wildcats jumped back into the thick of the Legends Division race with a 21-13 win at Minnesota. Check out our final thought s on NU's victory, plus a look around the Big Ten and a brief preview of next week's games.
Final thoughts on Northwestern's win
A largely disappointing receiving corps
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Arguing the potential of Northwestern’s receiving corps is a fool’s errand. The depth chart is stocked with explosive playmakers, from senior Demetrius Fields and junior Rashad Lawrence to former five-star recruit Kyle Prater and speedster Tony Jones. There are at least six receivers on NU’s roster capable of starting for practically any Big Ten team. With that much talent, and that much depth, it might strike you as somewhat surprising that the Wildcats offense has morphed itself into a run-oriented attack. Don’t believe it? Consider this: through seven games this season, the Wildcats have accumulated 1,599 rushing yards on 316 attempts; compare that to just 1,256 passing yards on 206 attempts. Still not convinced? NU has garnered 88 first downs on running plays but only 64 through the air. That is the portrait of a run-first offense. I could continue to dole out statistical reference points to bolster my case. But it’s hardly necessary. NU has embraced a run-first philosophy.
This is fact, borne of strong statistical correlation and empirical evidence – not opinion. The origins of this fundamental shift are plain. They lie within the 5-foot-8, 175 pound frame of one Venric Mark, the former special teams ace who after Saturday’s masterful tour de force against Minnesota ranks seventh nationally in all-purpose yards per game with 180.50. There was a time when NU’s coaches naively believed Mark’s best fit was at wideout. And perhaps if he found comfort in that position, NU’s schematic alterations wouldn’t be so stark. But as he’s shown so many times this season, Mark is a running back. The Wildcats are at their best when maximizing Mark’s touches. Put two and two together, and the end result is an offense that’s going to be handing off a lot, if only to get its best player as many opportunities as possible. Mark is not entirely responsible for the shift – Trevor Siemian’s inconsistent performance and coaches’ perplexing restrictions on Colter’s passing attempts have limited NU’s air-bound potential – but he’s the forerunner of the constitutional revamp. Now if only the Wildcats could figure out how to get all those receivers involved on a more frequent basis. Oh, the possibilities.
Bowl Eligible Bonanza
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Yesterday, I tweeted that Northwestern fans need to stop it with the "WE'RE BOWL ELIGIBLE" tweets and Facebook posts, and of course, NU fans got mad. The responses varied from "stop being biased" (?) to "NU didn't have any bowls between 1950 and 1995 so we have the right to be happy" to "we still want more wins, but this is a good benchmark." Frankly, none of those are true, and despite what fans may think, I wasn't insulting NU with my comments. In fact, I was saying that the program is in a better state than those who cheer for bowl eligibility. Don't believe me? Ask Pat Fitzgerald and the players.
Fitzgerald: "I don't think they have a clue that we are (bowl eligible) in that locker room. That's not a goal on the board."
Venric Mark: "Bowl eligible, that doesn't matter."
Does bowl eligibility mean anything to Tyler Scott? "No." And it shouldn't.
The paradox of Northwestern fans is their desire for respect coupled with clinging to the underdog, "Cardiac Cats," "we do it the right way" moniker. You can't have both. Before the season, Northwestern dubbed itself as a Legends Division contender, and a month and a half later, that goal is still very much in play. This isn't the Northwestern of old that doubled as "Little Sisters of the Poor." This is a legit contender. For legit contenders, bowl eligibility isn't supposed to be in doubt, therefore it shouldn't be celebrated, or even noted. You can't say that this team should celebrate bowl eligibility because past Northwestern teams have sucked. This team doesn't resemble those past teams at all.
Last year's team was right to celebrate its sixth win, because getting to that point was in doubt heading into November. It was never in doubt for this team — at least not lately — so why use it as a benchmark? It can be used as a benchmark for teams that are on the cusp in November and for programs that have actually been terrible recently (i.e. Duke). However, it has no business being a benchmark for a team that is a contender for a division title. This team has the chance to be special and it's not even remotely related to any of the NU teams between 1950 and 1995. Don't disrespect this team by using those years as a reason to cheer for a benchmark of mediocrity.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten championship frontrunners emerge
by Chris Johnson
The chaos of nonconference play distorted preseason perceptions in the Big Ten. Many believed Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska would wage a heated battle for the Legends Division crown, while Wisconsin was a safe bet to reach Indy thanks to NCAA sanctions eliminating both Penn State and Ohio State from postseason play. The latter – after Wisconsin’s 38-14 beatdown at Purdue, the only legitimate challenge to the Badgers in the Leaders Division – is almost guaranteed. The Badgers are the only postseason-eligible Leaders Division team with a conference win, and when you take into account the way Illinois has looked in conference play thus far, Indiana’s ongoing rebuilding process and Purdue’s head-to-head loss, it’s clear no one is catching Wisconsin – save for an all-time epic choke job.
With the Leaders Division settled, we may have also gained some clarity in the Legends Division race this weekend. Michigan notched its second conference win, this one a 45-0 rout of Illinois. It was only slightly less impressive than the Wolverines 44-13 romp of Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium last week. Over its last two games, Michigan has outscored the opposition 89-13, and has allowed fewer than 13 points in its last four contests. Northwestern (2-1) and Iowa (2-0) are still very much alive in the Legends race, but Michigan gets both teams at home on back-to-back dates in November. More importantly, Michigan is starting to look like the top-10 worthy team we envisioned before the season started. The defense has rounded into shape, Denard Robinson is cutting down on his mistakes and the Wolverines have regained the pride they lost in nonconference defeats to Alabama and Notre Dame. Michigan will continue to grow with each conference win, and by the time that crucial November stretch rolls around (November 10 – Northwestern, November 17 – Iowa), the Wolverines will be peaking in time to seal the Legends title. Nothing is guaranteed, but after three weeks of conference play, a Wisconsin-Michigan Big Ten title game seems the most likely scenario.
by Kevin Trahan
At the beginning of the year, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska were everyone's favorites to win the Legends Division. Now, just one of those teams remains in the driver's seat. Michigan has bounced back from two non-conference losses to start 2-0 in the Big Ten — granted, those victories came against Illinois and Purdue — and the Wolverines look like the conference's best postseason eligible team right now, though that could change next week considering how this season has gone. However, the other two contenders are a bit more surprising, as Iowa and Northwestern are both above .500 in conference play. Nebraska is certainly still a force to be reckoned with, but the Cornhuskers aren't in as good of shape as the Hawkeyes or Wildcats.
NU's record might seem surprising without context, but none of the Cats' wins were really unexpected. Now comes the tough part of the schedule, with Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State all in a row (with a bye week mixed in). That's a tough gauntlet, but as of now, NU has solidified itself as a contender. Then there's Iowa, which has lost at home to Iowa State and Central Michigan this year, but is 2-0 in the Big Ten with a home blowout of Minnesota and an overtime road win at Michigan State. The Hawkeyes have a wildly inconsistent offense and a defense that has been better than expected, so the jury is still out on whether they can keep it up. However, at this point in the year, NU and Iowa look like legitimate contenders to play in Indianapolis in December.
Around The Big Ten – Recapping the week’s Biggest Games
by Chris Johnson
Iowa 19, Michigan State 16 – A few weeks back, after Michigan State fell 17-16 at home to Ohio State, I used this space to vent my frustration with the Spartans, my preseason favorite to not only get to the Rose Bowl, but perhaps contend for a BCS National Championship birth. Even after the OSU loss, I held out faith that Michigan State, ripe with defensive talent and a first-year starting quarterback with as much experience as any backup could possibly garner, could recover to challenge for the Legends Division crown. Saturday was the last straw; I am officially off the Spartans bandwagon. Let the Hawkeyes ugly 20T victory serve as my official jumping off point, for it is now clear that the Spartans are a flawed team, particularly on offense. Credit to the Hawkeyes, who have rebounded from an inauspicious nonconference season to surge atop the Leaders Division.
Wisconsin 38, Purdue 14 – This was supposed to be Purdue’s best chance to break Wisconsin’s recent stranglehold atop the Leaders Division. Penn State and Ohio State are ineligible. Illinois and Indiana are down. And Wisconsin clearly isn’t the back-to-back Rose Bowl juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the past two seasons. But in order for the Boilermakers to capitalize on this favorable confluence of circumstance, they needed to take care of business at home against the Badgers. Returning Heisman finalist Montee Ball convincingly squashed Purdue’s upset bid with a breakout performance (247 yards, three touchdowns) as part of Wisconsin’s all-out obliteration, which – as detailed in the passage above – essentially seals the Badgers a safe ride to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship game.
(23) Michigan 45, Illinois 0 – Is Illinois the worst team in the Big Ten? That’s a fair question to ask now that the Fighting Illini have dropped their first three league contests, none of which have remained remotely competitive into the fourth quarter. Penn State (35-7), Wisconsin (31-14) and Michigan have dominated Tim Beckman’s team, Saturday’s listless effort in Ann Arbor standing as the worst result yet. Coaching transitions are never easy, no matter the amount of returning talent or winning tradition. But I don’t think anyone expected the Illini to sink this low in Beckman’s inaugural season, not with so much coming back on defense, two capable quarterbacks and Beckman’s inventive offensive mind pulling the strings. This is a whole new level of futility for the Illini. Struggles were expected, but there is no excuse for the effort Illinois has put forth through seven games this season. Denard Robinson accounted for 286 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in the rout. Meanwhile, Illinois completed just seven passes for 29 yards. Yikes.
Around the Big Ten — Three games to look forward to
by Kevin Trahan
Nebraska at Northwestern — How big is this game? It beat out Michigan vs. Michigan State for the afternoon slot on ABC. We don't know a lot about either of these teams yet — Nebraska can't play consistent defense and Northwestern has yet to get a signature win. A big game against a formidable NU offense would help ease the concerns about the Huskers, and this would certainly count as a big win for NU. Most importantly, the winner has a much easier path to a Legends Division title. It should be a fast-paced, offensive thriller in Evanston.
Michigan State at Michigan — Michigan State is reeling after a 1-2 start to Big Ten play that included home losses to Ohio State and Iowa and an escape on the road at Indiana. Now, the 4-3 Spartans head to the Big House to face a Michigan team that has suddenly stepped up on both sides of the ball. It's unlikely that Michigan State will be able to score much on the Michigan defense, and while the Wolverines won't put up offensive numbers in the 40s like the last two games, they should be able to score enough. If that happens, Michigan will solidify itself as a Legends Division favorite, while Michigan State will be .500 with a tough schedule upcoming.
Penn State at Iowa — What can we make of the Hawkeyes? The defense, while young, has overachieved, and walk-on fullback-turned-running back Mark Weisman proved he can be successful against top defenses, but the passing game has been atrocious. After a big win in East Lansing, Iowa is now 2-0 in the Big Ten and has a chance to extend that lead in a home night game against Penn State. The Nittany Lions have struggled in Iowa City at night — to be fair, most teams do — but they've looked very good this year, going on a four-game winning streak that has put Bill O'Brien in the Big Ten Coach of the Year discussion. This game will be a huge momentum-builder for either team.